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The Question We’ve Stopped Asking About Teen-Agers and Social Media – The New Yorker



The Question We’ve Stopped Asking About Teen-Agers and Social Media

An iPhone inside a pack of cigarettes.

Illustration by Ben Denzer

The trouble started in mid-September, when the Wall Street Journal published an exposé titled “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show.” The article revealed that Facebook had identified disturbing information about the impact of their Instagram service on young users. It cited an internal company presentation, leaked to the paper by an anonymous whistle-blower, that included a slide claiming that “thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Another slide offered a blunter conclusion: “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

These revelations sparked a media firestorm. “Instagram Is Even Worse Than We Thought for Kids,” announced a Washington Post article published in the days following the Journal’s scoop. “It’s Not Just Teenage Girls—Instagram Is Toxic for Everyone,” claimed an op-ed in the Boston Globe. “Zuckerberg’s public comments about his platform’s effects on mental health appear to be at odds with Facebook’s internal findings,” noted the New York Post. In a defiant post published on his Facebook account, Mark Zuckerberg pushed back, stating that the motives of his company were “misrepresented.” The very fact that Facebook was conducting this research, he wrote, implies that the company cares about the health impact of its products. Zuckerberg also pointed to data, included in the leaked slides, that showed how, in eleven out of the twelve areas of concern that were studied (such as loneliness and eating issues), more teen-age girls said that Instagram helped rather than hurt. In the background, however, the company paused work on a new Instagram Kids service.

These corporate responses weren’t enough to stem the criticism. In early October, the whistle-blower went public in an interview on “60 Minutes,” revealing herself to be Frances Haugen, a data scientist who had worked for Facebook on issues surrounding democracy and misinformation. Two days later, Haugen testified for more than three hours before a Senate subcommittee, arguing that Facebook’s focus on growth over safeguards had resulted in “more division, more harm, more lies, more threats, and more combat.” In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Democrat and Republican members of the subcommittee seemed to agree that these social-media platforms were a problem. “Every part of the country has the harms that are inflicted by Facebook and Instagram,” the subcommittee chair, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, stated in a press conference following Haugen’s testimony.


This is far from the first time that Facebook has faced scrutiny. What struck me about this particular pile-on, however, was less its tone—which was near-uniformly negative—than what was missing. The commentary reacting to the Journal’s scoop was quick to demand punishment and constraints on Facebook. In many cases, the writers seethed with frustration about the lack of such retribution enacted to date. “Both Democrats and Republicans have lambasted Facebook for years, amid polls showing the company is deeply unpopular with much of the public,” noted a representative article from the Washington Post. “Despite that, little has been done to bring the company to heel.” What’s largely absent from the discussion, however, is any consideration of what is arguably the most natural response to the leaks about Instagram’s potential harm: Should kids be using these services at all?

There was a moment in 2018, in the early stages of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when the hashtag #DeleteFacebook began to trend. Quitting the service became a rational response to the growing litany of accusations that Facebook faced, such as engineered addiction, privacy violations, and its role in manipulating civic life. But the hashtag soon lost momentum, and the appetite for walking away from social media diminished. Big-swing Zeitgeist articles—such as a 2017 Atlantic story that asked “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”—gave way to smaller policy-focussed polemics about arcane regulatory responses and the nuances of content-moderation strategies. This cultural shift has helped Facebook. “The reality is that young people use technology. Think about how many school-age kids have phones,” Zuckerberg wrote in his post responding to the latest scandal. “Rather than ignoring this, technology companies should build experiences that meet their needs while also keeping them safe.” Many of the politicians and pundits responding to the Facebook leaks implicitly accept Zuckerberg’s premise that these tools are here to stay, and all that’s left is to argue about how they operate.

I’m not sure, however, that we should be so quick to give up on interrogating the necessity of these technologies in our lives, especially when they impact the well-being of our children. In an attempt to keep this part of the conversation alive, I reached out to four academic experts—selected from both sides of the ongoing debate about the harm caused by these platforms—and asked them, with little preamble or instruction, the question missing from so much of the recent coverage of the Facebook revelations: Should teen-agers use social media? I wasn’t expecting a consensus response, but I thought it was important, at the very least, to define the boundaries of the current landscape of expert opinion on this critical issue.

I started with the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has emerged in recent years, in both academic and public circles, as one of the more prominent advocates for issues surrounding social media and teen-age mental health. In his response to my blunt question, Haidt drew a nuanced distinction between communication technology and social media. “Connecting directly with friends is great,” he told me. “Texting, Zoom, FaceTime, and Snapchat are not so bad.” His real concern were platforms that are specifically engineered to “keep the child’s eyes glued to the screen for as long as possible in a never-ending stream of social comparison and validation-seeking from strangers”—platforms that see the user as the product, not the customer. “How did we ever let Instagram and TikTok become a large part of the lives of so many eleven-year-olds?” he asked.

I also talked to Adam Alter, a marketing professor at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, who was thrown into the social-media debate by the publication of his fortuitously timed 2017 book, “Irresistible,” which explored the mechanisms of addictive digital products. “There’s more than one way to answer this question, and most of those point to no,” he answered. Alter said that he has delivered this same prompt to hundreds of parents and that “none of them seem happy that their teens use social media.” Many of the teens he spoke with have confirmed a similar unease. Alter argued that we shouldn’t dismiss these self-reports: “If they feel unhappy and can express that unhappiness, even that alone suggests the problem is worth taking seriously.” He went on to add that these issues are not necessarily easy to solve. He expressed worry, for example, about the difficulty of trying to move a teen-ager away from social media if most of their peers are using these platforms to organize their social lives.

On the more skeptical side of the debate about the potential harm to teen-agers is Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University and one of the world’s leading experts on adolescence. In the aftermath of Haugen’s Senate testimony, Steinberg published an Op-Ed in the Times that argued that the research linking services like Instagram to harm is still underdeveloped, and that we should be cautious about relying on intuition. “Psychological research has repeatedly shown that we often don’t understand ourselves as well as we think we do,” he wrote. In answering my question, Steinberg underscored his frustration with claims that he thinks are out ahead of what the data support. “People are certain that social media use must be harmful,” he told me. “But history is full of examples of things that people were absolutely sure of that science proved wrong. After all, people were certain that the world was flat.”

Another leading academic who expresses caution about stamping out social media is Amy Orben, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, who specializes in the statistical analysis of large data sets. In 2019, Orben, along with an experimental psychologist at Oxford named Andrew Przybylski, made waves with a contrarian study that they published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. The paper applied an advanced statistical technique called specification-curve analysis to three large-scale social data sets, which contained responses from more than three hundred and fifty thousand individuals. Orben and Przybylski found, in contrast to previously published results, only a minor negative association between digital technology and adolescent well-being. “Taking the broader context of the data into account suggests that these effects are too small to warrant policy change,” they conclude. In response to my question about teen-agers using social media, Orben echoed this conclusion that researchers shouldn’t be making behavior recommendations. “Teenagers have the right to do what they want to do and what they see [as] appropriate,” she told me. “I don’t think I am in the capacity to say whether they should use social media or not.”

These four expert responses do not provide a definitive answer to the question of whether teen-agers should participate on platforms like Instagram, but they do encode some useful insights. At the core of Steinberg and Orben’s equivocations on the topic is their conviction that we lack a strong signal in the data that shows an unambiguous link between social media and reduced well-being. Reading the literature in more detail makes it clear that we shouldn’t expect such a strong signal anytime soon. Non-scientists often assume that measuring the impact of behavior is straightforward: Can’t we just compare teen-agers who use social media to those who don’t and see which group is happier? The issue is that humans are complicated. Many factors influence well-being, and many of these factors are correlated in subtle ways—maybe the very reason you use social media more as a teen-ager is to feel better about other issues that are already making you sad. Soon after Orben and Przybylski published their study in Nature Human Behaviour, for example, a group of researchers, including Haidt, published a reply in the same journal, arguing, among other things, that the minor negative correlation in the original paper increases significantly when you change the behavior studied from screen time in general to social media use more specifically. Orben and Przybylski then responded with a reply to the reply—and so turns the slow wheel of research progress.

For a particularly dispiriting case study of how long it sometimes takes to establish definitive causation between behaviors and negative outcomes, consider the effort involved in connecting smoking to lung cancer. The first major study showing a statistical correlation between cigarettes and cancer, authored by Herbert Lombard and Carl Doering of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Harvard School of Public Health, was published in 1928. I recently came across an article in the archives of The Atlantic from 1956—nearly thirty years later—in which the author was still trying to convince skeptics who were unhappy with the types of confounding factors that are unavoidable in scientific studies. “If it has not been proved that tobacco is guilty of causing cancer of the lung,” the article pleads, “it has certainly been shown to have been on the scene of the crime.”

So where does this leave us? If the science is not yet ready to give us a definitive answer about the impact of social media on teen-agers, then Amy Orben is right when she notes that, in her role as a scientist, she can’t tell you what to do with your kids. But this isn’t an issue that we need to fully defer to science. Unlike the hard-to-detect development of lung-cancer cells, when it comes to the well-being of teen-agers, we can, as parents or educators, often clearly observe what seems to make a difference. Even more directly, we can ask the teen-agers themselves. As Adam Alter noted, it doesn’t take much time chatting about social media with these groups before alarms begin to ring. In other words, you don’t need a specification-curve analysis to uncover the potential negative impacts of Instagram—just ask any teen-age girl. Of course, even given the high level of concern about these tools, the right response is still not obvious. It might turn out that the best way forward is to treat teen-age social media like teen-age smoking, and reorient our culture to discourage it altogether. It might also turn out, however, that a more nuanced approach is needed, where we change our culture to make it easier to choose not to use social media, enabling the subset of people who suffer disproportionately from its effects to find a socially acceptable escape from the technologies that unsettle them.

What is obvious, however, is that regardless of what answers we end up with, we need to keep debating these fundamental questions. As Zuckerberg emphasized in his defensive post, he wants us to concede that his products are inevitable, and that we have no choice but to move on to discussing their features and safeguards. We might think we’re really sticking it to these social-media giants when we skewer their leaders in congressional hearings, or write scathing commentary pieces about the shortcomings of their moderation policies, but, in some sense, this response provides a reprieve because it sidesteps the conversation that these companies are trying hardest to avoid: the conversation about whether, in the end, the buzzy, digital baubles they offer are really worth all the trouble they’re creating.

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Vatican singles out bishops in urging reflective not reactive social media use



VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican on Monday urged the Catholic faithful, and especially bishops, to be “reflective, not reactive” on social media, issuing guidelines to try to tame the toxicity on Catholic Twitter and other social media platforms and encourage users to instead be “loving neighbors.”

The Vatican’s communications office issued a “pastoral reflection” to respond to questions it has fielded for years about a more responsible, Christian use of social media and the risks online that accompany the rise of fake news and artificial intelligence.

For decades the Holy See has offered such thoughts on different aspects of communications technologies, welcoming the chances for encounter they offer but warning of the pitfalls. Pope Francis of late has warned repeatedly about the risk of young people being so attached to their cell phones that they stop face-to-face friendships.

The new document highlights the divisions that can be sown on social media, and the risk of users remaining in their “silos” of like-minded thinkers and rejecting those who hold different opinions. Such tendencies can result in exchanges that “can cause misunderstanding, exacerbate division, incite conflict, and deepen prejudices,” the document said.


It warned that such problematic exchanges are particularly worrisome “when it comes from church leadership: bishops, pastors, and prominent lay leaders. These not only cause division in the community but also give permission and legitimacy for others likewise to promote similar type of communication,” the message said.

The message could be directed at the English-speaking Catholic Twittersphere, where some prominent Catholic figures, including bishops, frequently engage in heated debates or polemical arguments that criticize Francis and his teachings.

The prefect of the communications office, Paolo Ruffini, said it wasn’t for him to rein in divisive bishops and it was up to their own discernment. But he said the general message is one of not feeding the trolls or taking on “behavior that divides rather than unites.”



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Russia says U.S. Senator should say if Ukraine took his words out of context



MOSCOW, May 29 (Reuters) – Russia on Monday said U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham should say publicly if he believes his words were taken out of context by a Ukrainian state video edit of his comments about the war that provoked widespread condemnation in Moscow.

In an edited video released by the Ukrainian president’s office of Graham’s meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on Friday, Graham was shown saying “the Russians are dying” and then saying U.S. support was the “best money we’ve ever spent”.

After Russia criticised the remarks, Ukraine released a full video of the meeting on Sunday which showed the two remarks were not directly linked.

Russia’s foreign ministry said Western media had sought to shield the senator from criticism and said that Graham should publicly state if he feels his words were taken out of context by the initial Ukrainian video edit.


“If U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham considers his words were taken out of context by the Ukrainian regime and he doesn’t actually think in the way presented then he can make a statement on video with his phone,” Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a video posted on Telegram.

“Only then will we know: does he think the way that was said or was it a performance by the Kyiv regime?”

Graham’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The initial video of Graham’s remarks triggered criticism from across Moscow, including from the Kremlin, Putin’s powerful Security Council and from the foreign ministry.

Graham said he had simply praised the spirit of Ukrainians in resisting a Russian invasion with assistance provided by Washington.

Graham said he had mentioned to Zelenskiy “that Ukraine has adopted the American mantra, ‘Live Free or Die.’ It has been a good investment by the United States to help liberate Ukraine from Russian war criminals.”

Russia’s interior ministry has put Graham on a wanted list after the Investigative Committee said it was opening a criminal probe into his comments. It did not specify what crime he was suspected of.

In response, Graham said: “I will wear the arrest warrant issued by Putin’s corrupt and immoral government as a Badge of Honor.

“…I will continue to stand with and for Ukraine’s freedom until every Russian soldier is expelled from Ukrainian territory.”

A South Carolina Republican known for his hawkish foreign policy views, Graham has been an outspoken champion of increased military support for Ukraine in its battle against Russia.

Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Nick Macfie

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.



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Jamie Sarkonak: Liberals bring identity quotas to Canada Media Fund



In 2021, the Liberals said they would dramatically boost funding for the Canada Media Fund. And they did — but that funding came with diversity quotas and a new emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

It’s another bald-faced example of the Liberals infusing identity into public (or publicly-funded-but-government-adjacent) media programs to craft Canada in their image. Now, the program is beholden to diversity-based budgeting (with diversity “targets” in its largest funding branch), an identity tracking system for content producers and a “narrative positioning” policy that guides how stories about certain groups are told.

The Canada Media Fund is supposed to oversee a funding pool that supports the creation of Canadian media projects in the areas of drama, kids’ programming, documentaries and even video games. According to its most recent annual report, about half its revenue ($184 million) comes from the federal government through the Department of Canadian Heritage (another near-half comes from broadcasting companies through the country’s broadcasting regulator, the CRTC). The department also has the power to appoint two of the fund’s board members.

It’s a lot of money, but there’s a good rationale for domestic media production behind it. Canadian producers might not be able to secure funding for homegrown projects without it, which would make Canadians even more dependent on the U.S. for entertainment than we are already.


The Canada Media Fund is doing a lot more than broadly funding content creation, though. With more federal funding brought in after the past election, it is now responsible for greenlighting projects to meet identity quotas set out by the Liberals.

According to the Canada Media Fund’s contract with Canadian Heritage, which has been obtained by the National Post through a previously-completed access to information request, the number of projects funded with government-sourced dollars and led by “people of equity-deserving groups” will have to amount to 45 by 2024. The number of “realized projects” for people of these groups must amount to 25 by 2024. Finally, by 2024, a quarter of funded “key creative positions” must be held by people from designated diversity groups.

These funding quotas are similar to the CBC’s new diversity requirements for budgeting. When the CBC’s broadcasting licence was renewed by the CRTC last year, it was required to dedicate 30 per cent of its independent content production budget to diverse groups, which will rise to 35 per cent in 2026. While the CRTC is arm’s-length from government, a Liberal-appointed CRTC commissioner appeared eager to impose quotas that were on par with the governing party’s agenda on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

The government’s agreement with the Canada Media Fund also sets aside $20 million of the new money explicitly for people considered diverse enough to check a box — anyone from “sovereignty-seeking” and “equity-seeking” groups.

“’Sovereignty- and Equity-Seeking Community’ refers to the individuals who identify as women, First Nations, Métis, Inuit, Racialized, 2SLGBTQ+, Persons with disabilities/Disabled Persons, Regional, and Official Language Minority Community,” reads the Canada Media Fund’s explainer on who gets diversity status.

For the most part, everyone other than straight, white, non-disabled men get special treatment by the fund.

Aside from getting mandatory coverage through the use of quotas, the groups listed above are shielded with “narrative positioning” policies that took effect this year. If the main character, key storyline, or subject matter has anything to do with the above groups, creators must either be from that group or take “comprehensive measures that have and will be undertaken to create the content responsibly, thoughtfully and without harm.” These can include consultations, sharing of ownership rights, and hiring policies from the community. While narrative requirements weren’t mandated by the Liberals in their grant to the fund, they complement the overall DEI strategy.

Storytellers vying for certain grants have to sign an attestation form agreeing with the narrative policy and write a compliance plan if their works have anything to do with the above groups. Plainly, it’s a force of narrative control.

This doesn’t go both ways; women can make documentaries about men consult-free, non-white people can make TV dramas about white people consult-free, and so on.

Statistically, diversity is being tracked on a internal system that logs the identities of key staff and leadership on every Canada Media Fund project. The diversity repository was rolled out this year. Internal documents indicate these stats will be used to monitor program progress and adjust policy going forward.

These changes are all directly linked to a Liberal platform point on media modernization. In the 2021 Liberal platform, the party committed to doubling the government’s contribution to the fund. Since then, the Liberal platform has been cited directly in internal documents outlining the Canada Media Fund’s three-year growth strategy (which explains how the new money will be used, in part, to ramp up DEI efforts).

Together, it looks like both the fund, and the party responsible for doubling its taxpayer support are more concerned about the identities of filmmakers and TV producers than the actual media being produced.

Creators should be able to tell stories about others without the narrative department’s oversight — the more narrative control, the more it starts to sound like propaganda. Good creators wanting to tell an authentic story should conduct research and be respectful of the people they cover — but they shouldn’t be bound to consultations and ownership agreements.

National Post



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